On a night like this

by Tony Attwood

Clinton Heylin calls On a night like this “anodyne”, but he’s never been a songwriter.  If he had he would know it is as hard to write a memorable bouncy love song as it is to write “Like a Rolling Stone”.

The problem is that eight billion previous versions of “tonight it is a special night” have been written before.   Even more bouncy tunes have been written around four chords (five if you include the extra chord in the middle 8).

And most of them you won’t even want to listen to to the bitter end.

The problem for the songwriter is also that you have maybe 500 words to play with, you have a melody that the listener is going to hear four times during the course of the song, and you still have to make it listenable and memorable rather than irritating or instantly forgettable.  But equally it needs to be catchy, so that phrases of music and lyrical phrases can be remembered readily by the audience.

What makes this song so much worse than some of the 12 bar blues that Dylan has recorded?  To my mind nothing at all  – he turns his hand to a different type of song, and being the supreme songwriter he is, he makes it work.  Many of his blues are interesting, but not that special.  This is an interesting and memorable pop song to my mind.

Additionally, the concept of the lyrics is fairly unusual – the lady comes round, seemingly by surprise, in the depths of winter, the singer is delighted, they go to bed, as they have done once before.  Everyone’s happy.  Hardly War and Peace, but still not the usual love or lost love concepts that dominate pop music.  As a positive take on casual sex it is rather unusual.  How many songs can you think of that say, “hey nice to see you, nice to go to bed together” without professing love or lust?  There are some, but not so many.

What also makes it fun is the fact that although it is a pop song, Dylan sneaks in the unexpected.  For example, “burn, burn, burn” comes from Kerouac’s masterpiece, “On the Road” – a regular influence on Dylan of course.

Here’s the full quote

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” 

So what do we have but Dylan being that burn burn burn person in a suburban setting.  A fascinating idea, and one that he pulls off.  Indeed it is done so casually that if you don’t really listen to the lyrics it is easy to miss.

And there’s the sudden end of romance in the “middle 8” when having got the woman into bed he stops all the elegance of his seduction and goes for

There is plenty a room for all
So please don’t elbow me

Of course I’ve never played this song over and over as I have done with Desolation Row, Johanna, Not Dark Yet etc etc, but just because it isn’t in the style of the greatest of Dylan’s masterpieces we should not, in my view, reject it.  Even Picasso did lots of drawings of what he saw, just for the doing of them.  Not every painting was Guernica, but it doesn’t make many of the prints any less worth keeping and viewing.

Part of Dylan’s supremacy as a songwriter is that he has reached out to every corner of contemporary music, from the nursery rhyme to the epic, from the songs of disdain to pop, and he achieves something unique in each case.

Here’s he’s proving that even with a song format that has been hammered to death he can still play with the lyrics, and give us something to think about along the way.

The song opens “Planet Waves”.  It compacts its storyline into under three minutes.  In terms of the miniature that it is, it is superb.

Index to all the songs reviewed


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